Eadweard Muybridge: The Photographer Who Froze Time

Before John Logie Baird first demonstrated his television in 1927, before Thomas Edison showed off his movie projector in 1888, photographer Eadweard Muybridge was making moving pictures.

Edward James Muggeridge was born in Kingston upon Thames, a suburb of London, on April 9, 1830. He changed his name several times early in his life before finally settling on the surname Muybridge from 1865.

Muybridge moved to New York in his twenties and started a business importing books from England. He quickly moved to his ultimate destination of San Francisco. In San Francisco he continued his business as an importer and also began publishing books.

While traveling between California and New York, he had a serious stagecoach accident. This was a few years before the construction of the transcontinental railroad, so part of the journey was by slow and dangerous stagecoaches. When the poorly trained team of horses started racing, the driver could not control them and the stage crashed, killing at least one passenger and seriously injuring Muybridge and the others.

Muybridge was unconscious for several days and took months to recover. He later attributed his injuries to his hair having turned prematurely gray. His tousled hair and long, bushy white beard made him look much older than he was. Many people also attributed the accident to a change in personality that sometimes caused him to act erratically. There is evidence, however, that he was always eccentric and a character in every way.

Portraits of Eadweard Muybridge from around 1860, 1873 and around 1895.

A stormy start to a career as a photographer

Muybridge became interested in photography through a friend and soon traveled to Yosemite to shoot scenic photographs. By all accounts, his panoramic photos were outstanding as he was soon making the bulk of his income selling prints of scenes around Yosemite and Northern California.

Yosemite Valley. From mosquito camp (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.
Loya, Yosemite Valley (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.
Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley (1872), by Eadweard Muybridge.

He also made amazing large panoramic photos of San Francisco.

A panorama of San Francisco captured in 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge.

It was around this time in 1872 that he met Flora Shallcross Stone who was working as a retoucher in a photography studio where Muybridge was affiliated. She was 21 and got married when he was 42. She divorced her husband and married Muybridge. Shortly after their marriage, she began an affair with a known con man named Harry Larkyns. Flora and Larkyns’ relationship was no secret as Muybridge was away for weeks taking pictures.

Flora quickly became pregnant with a son. The paternity of the child was never determined with certainty, but the midwife, Flora and Larkyns assumed that the baby belonged to Larkyns. When Muybridge discovered the affair and the baby may not have been his son, he shot and killed Harry Larkyns on October 17, 1874.

At his trial, the defense attorney used the argument “not guilty by reason of insanity” and had Muybridge’s friends testify to prove that he was emotionally unstable. The jury ignored the insanity defense and acquitted Muybridge of “justifiable homicide”. Flora filed for divorce and then died of typhoid fever five months later. After Flora’s trial and death, Muybridge went on a lengthy photographic expedition to South America to let things calm down and clear his head.

Using photography to stop time

Back in San Francisco, Muybridge’s photographs caught the attention of Leland Stanford, president of the Pacific Central Railroad and governor of California. Stanford was a horse enthusiast and breeder. He wanted to get photographs of his horses running to determine exactly what movements they were making so he would learn which muscles needed strengthening to run faster.

Stanford’s photo challenge was no small task as instant photographs were not possible with the technology then in effect. Most exposures were in seconds, not fractions of a second. The cameras didn’t even have shutters, instead relying on lens cap removal and exposure time.

Muybridge accepted the challenge and began the process of researching faster lenses, making faster film emulsions, and designing instant shutters.

Muybridge helped create a special photo studio in 1879 on a Palo Alto trail with 24 cameras lined up in a shed. With the help of Stanford engineers, strings were used to capture horses with shutter speeds of up to 1/2000 of a second at a time when exposures were typically measured in seconds.

Stanford had purchased property south of San Francisco to build a horse farm which he called Palo Alto Farm. He later established a town there which he called Palo Alto and built a college named after his deceased son, Leland Stanford Junior University, now known as Stanford University.

Whether Eadweard Muybridge was an employee of Stanford or whether Stanford was Muybridge’s client is unclear, and became a serious question later when copyright and credit disputes arose. In all likelihood, Stanford was a client, but Muybridge was not a good enough businessman to put the relationship in writing.

The working relationship was quite close, with Stanford making technical suggestions and providing engineers to help design electromagnetic shutters for the bank of 12 to 24 cameras which had to be triggered in sequence as the horse passed. The photos were taken at Palo Alto Farm with Stanford funding the project.

Eadweard Muybridge The horse in motion1878.
Muybridge’s photos proved that horses have all four legs in the air during parts of their canter stride.

Muybridge spent much of his time traveling and lecturing on procedurals and incredible audiences with images of horses in motion. While in Europe on a lecture tour, Stanford published a book called “The Horse in Motion” without giving any credit or even mentioning Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was furious, but Stanford apparently believed that Muybridge was just another employee, not worth mentioning.

Paving the way to cinema

In 1879 Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, a device that used a round disc to project sequential images in rapid succession. He used it extensively in his travels and lectures, captivating audiences with the moving images.

Muybridge captured photos of a man and woman dancing a waltz in 1887 for “Animal Locomotion.” An electro-photographic investigation… of animal movements.
An animation from Muybridge’s footage of a dancing man and woman.
A zoopraxiscope disk that Muybridge made in 1893 from his pictures of the dancing man and woman. Spinning the disc creates the illusion of movement if the viewer focuses on a single spot on the disc.

Muybridge appealed to Thomas Edison at his New Jersey shop with the idea of ​​using Edison’s phonograph to synchronize with zoopraxiscope images, but the phonograph was not loud enough to be used in large venues conference room where Muybridge spoke and projected images. It would take a few more decades and electronically amplified sound before sound films were a reality.

It was around this time that George Eastman had invented a machine for coating photographic emulsion on flexible film. This is the bond that made the film camera and projector possible.

The zoopraxiscope cinema projector invented by Muybridge in 1879.

With Edison aware of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, he was probably working on a way to improve it for use with his own inventions. Thomas Edison quickly patented the movie projector without giving credit to Muybridge, effectively preventing Muybridge from receiving any credit or income from the invention.

While the move from a spinning disc to a long piece of film was clearly a major improvement, Edison should not be fully credited with inventing the film projector with the known historical data from Muybridge’s earlier work.

Studies of human and animal movement

After a long legal battle and lost friendships with Leland Stanford and his former associates in San Francisco, some of whom testified he was mad to protect him from the executioner, Muybridge was ready to push the project forward with other animals and humans. also. The University of Pennsylvania agreed to an arrangement, essentially a research grant, that would allow Muybridge to use university property, some interns as assistants, and art students as models to further his work.

Muybridge outdoor photo studio in UPenn circa 1886 near 36th and Pine streets. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.
“Male, leaping; standing spread jump (shoes)” by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

The university’s interests were primarily research, particularly medical, trying to understand how the human body moves and functions. Muybridge had already determined that some of the models should be nude to show the muscles used in various activities. This was, of course, the most controversial part of the project and nearly got the whole project canceled on several occasions. The University of Pennsylvania project took place from 1884 to 1885.

A sequence of Muybridge’s motion studies of a moving man.
Woman walking down stairs, looking around and waving a fan by Eadweard Muybridge.
Dancing woman (fantasy) by Eadweard Muybridge.

During the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Muybridge was able to secure space to build a theater to show his moving pictures and sell his books. It was the first purpose-built movie theater in the world. Apparently the theater was not a financial success as he did not renew the six-month lease and returned to England in 1894.

Muybridge would make an additional trip across the Atlantic to secure University of Pennsylvania negatives and prints. Once again there were legal issues over ownership, but eventually Muybridge was on its way back to England with 28 boxes comprising over 33,000 negatives and prints. With these he published moving animals in 1899 and human figure in motion in 1901. By this time, the halftone process had been invented and thus he was able to print photographs in books with a conventional printing press. “The Moving Human Figure” came with a disclaimer that could be summed up as “For mature audiences only”.

Eadweard Muybridge never became an American citizen despite spending forty years of his adult life in California, and he always considered himself an Englishman. He returned to be closer to his family in Kingston, dying there on May 8, 1904, at the age of 74.

He left his zoopraxiscope and the “Animal Locomotion” negatives to the borough of Kingston which has now displayed them in the local museum along with a large panoramic copy of San Francisco.


For further reading, an excellent book on the life and impact of Eadweard Muybridge, and a primary source used for this article, is The man who stopped time by Brian Clegg.

Leave a Comment